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This Changes Everything



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About The Author

Christina RobbChristina Robb

Christina Robb was a writer at the Boston Globe for more than twenty years. She lives in Massachusetts with her family.

photo: Copyright Martha Stewart

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EXCERPT

Chapter One
 
Difference I
 
One day, late in the fall of 1975, Carol Gilligan sat down at her dining room table with a pad of paper and wrote “In a Different Voice” at the top of the first page. She was a thirty-nine-year-old part-time assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, taking a year off to help settle her three sons in a new neighborhood. Later she said she started writing that day “for no reason.” She was speaking in exactly the same way that girls do when you ask them what they’ve been doing on the edge of the playground during recess while the boys have been playing pickup ball and chase and steal-the-hat and the girls say, “Nothing.”
 
“The men whose theories have largely informed this understanding of development have all been plagued by the same problem, the problem of women, whose sexuality remains more diffuse, whose perception of self is so much more tenaciously embedded in relationships with others and whose moral dilemmas hold them in a mode of judgment that is insistently contextual,” Carol wrote. “The solution has been to consider women as either deviant or deficient in their development.”1
 
But what—Carol asked, as she wrote on long yellow sheets in a room looking out over a wide lawn filled with moss-footed beeches planted a century before, a dining room walled with elegant paintings of merchant ships and schooners, of men and boys fishing in an eighteenth-century Dutch sea—what if the problem is not women? What if the problem is the theories that say women are a problem?
 
In 1972, the year Nixon beat McGovern in a landslide, Gilligan began asking men and women students at Harvard how they faced moral conflicts. She had also decided to study young men forced to choose whether or not to fight in Vietnam, a moral dilemma that was ripping American families and the United States apart.
 
The war was so unpopular, and yet so many U.S. troops were there—half a million at the peak—that you had to be involved. Either you were fighting in Vietnam or you were fighting about Vietnam somewhere else. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the songs on the radio—“Universal Soldier,” John Lennon’s “Imagine”—were about putting an end to war. The atmosphere was charged with antiwar feeling and rang with the protesters’ chant “Hell, no! We won’t go!” Marches, protests, rallies, sit-ins, and strikes pitted a civilian army of student war resisters against an army of police in riot gear virtually every time you turned on the TV news or picked up a newspaper.
 
Then, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court conceded to women the power to make a moral decision as wrenching as the choice of whether or not to go to war: whether or not to have an abortion. The Court’s decision came after an intense nationwide struggle by women activists that had already led to liberalization of abortion laws in California, Colorado, and North Carolina in 1967 and to the repeal of New York’s antiabortion law in 1970.
 
Gilligan, meanwhile, was planning her draft study and lining up draft-age men to interview. But the draft ended before she could start interviewing. So in 1974 she decided to study women who were in the throes of deciding whether to have first-term abortions.
 
“I’m talking with pregnant women at a time when the Supreme Court of this country has said that women can speak their thoughts aloud, that women’s voices can guide women’s decisions, can be the decisive voice. The women are battling the accusation of selfishness, the threat that if they speak they will disrupt, they will lose relationships. Is it selfish to listen to oneself rather than to others saying that to be a good woman means to be without a self, to be selfless? What does that mean? To be self-less? What is love? What is truth? What does it take to sustain a life? What is the responsive—that is, the present, the responsible—way to act at a time and place when there’s no way of acting that will not cause hurt? What does it mean to act rightly or well in a world that is intrinsically relational, where there’s no way of taking even one step,” Carol tells a class of graduate students in 1995, “without having the relational fabric shift under one’s weight?”
 
What is love?
 
What is truth?
 
You could say that all of Gilligan’s work—from “In a Different Voice” to The Birth of Pleasure—has simply allowed into psychology all the big questions she entered psychology to try to answer, because the first thing they taught her when she started studying psychology at Harvard was that those big questions were inappropriate. In fact, at the beginning of her studies, not only were her questions inappropriate, but, according to the head of the department, she herself was inappropriate. In 1958, when Gilligan arrived at Harvard from Swarthmore for graduate study, she recalls, “the head of my department announced, ‘We only take women students to keep our junior faculty happy. They’re going to have children and put their diplomas over the washing machine.’ I thought, Well, I take your program about as seriously as you take me.”
 
His kind of bias was so common, so expected, that she was nowhere near seeing it as a distortion that falsified all the psychology she read and heard. She was working in a university that paid white men to do research based on the assumption that they were at the top of the economic and social pile because of hereditary mental superiority. And these researchers were merely the latest to be rewarded for shoring up a system that rewarded intelligence in people of one skin color by making a theory that only found intelligence in people of one skin color. Richard J. Herrnstein, who had a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard and finished a term as chairman of the Harvard psychology department in 1971, ignored the continuing legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, school segregation, redlining, and other forms of racism and focused on I.Q. test results. “We do not know why blacks bunch towards the lower end of the social scale, or, for that matter, why Jews bunch towards the top,” he wrote, and went on to conclude, based mostly on data about white men, that intelligence is 85 percent inherited and that the political and social system rewards intelligence.2
 
He and his colleagues were renowned as experts in manipulating statistics and followed all the proper protocols for psychological research. They had no training in political or social analysis, and their work rested on the untested assumption that inherited intelligence—rather than education, cronyism, luck, appearance, or the ability to conform to a white male ideal—is the engine of social mobility. The game is fair, and the winners have to be smarter than the losers. That was their theory about intelligence, and there was a whole intellectual tradition, with its own jargon and buzzwords like “eugenics” and “progress,” that supported their theory.
 
But the civil rights movement had changed the rules—not yet of playing the game, but of seeing and hearing the game. And the women’s movement was giving women courage to speak. Herrnstein’s book found a lot of white critics who just couldn’t swallow its psychometric social Darwinism. In 1973, the year Herrnstein’s book I.Q. in the Meritocracy came out, you couldn’t go to a dinner party in Cambridge 02138, the zip code that includes Harvard, among the academic stars Herrnstein dubbed the best and the brightest, without seeing somebody walk out screaming and slam the door, furious that a host or a fellow guest could stomach Herrnstein’s ideas. Many of the door slammers, it must be said, were white women—the people who raised white men of superior rank, class, and intelligence that Herrnstein said were simply smart by nature. Couples divorced over his book. For some women, the discovery that their husbands actually believed that their power and wealth came from merit based on natural endowment was more than they could take. The argument was almost always about African-Americans—few of whom, it also has to be said, were at those tables. Banks and mortgage agencies had redlined black middle-class  people out of Boston’s white neighborhoods, suburbs, schools, and colleges, and at the moment the city was inflamed by a bitter fight about school busing to achieve integration. The fight showed an intensity of race hatred that embarrassed dinner-table integrationists in a region with a long history of opposing slavery and legal segregation. But at least in the courts and in the first round, integration won in the Boston public schools. Affirmative action had only just begun to put talented white people to work beside talented black colleagues whom the white people might then invite to dinner. So, trendily dressed white people—in jacket, tie, and jeans, or silk blouses and jeans, or cheap Indian silk caftans—would eat their coq au vin and sip their grand cru wines, almost all still under ten dollars, and rant: How could Herrnstein add insult to injury and call it science? Didn’t he read the newspaper? Dismantling Jim Crow in the South and school desegregation in the North were exposing generations of racist chicanery that amounted to a national policy of preventing African-Americans from acquiring wealth. How could Herrnstein imply that black people, so long oppressed and so many of them still at the bottom of the economic and social heap, were on the bottom because they were mentally inferior?
 
Few white women argued against Herrnstein from their own experience, even though they had a very damning argument: If humans were smart by inheritance, and intelligence was rewarded by merit in the system, why did a white upper-middle-class woman’s brothers get top corporate jobs while she ended up doing laundry and pouring all her intelligence and ability into raising a white upper-middle-class man’s sons and daughters? Herrnstein mentioned the huge difference in status and earnings between white men and white women but made nothing of it, noting only that one woman with an I.Q. of 192 had been happy to be a housewife raising eight children in the 1950s.3
 
One of the things that must have infuriated women about Herrnstein’s thesis is that it made their work invisible. Many suburban Boston schools still sent children home for lunch in 1973. Home was where Mom was supposed to be waiting with soup—and with time to nurture intelligence. Before kids started school, and after school, it was up to white middle-class mothers to teach their kids, while Dad might not get home from the office until after they were in bed. In school, most teachers were women. Not only did Herrnstein’s book fail to account for the very different way the “meritocracy” treated men and women born of the same white middle-class parents; it failed to notice the incredible amount of work—women’s work—that went into educating white middle-class men. And if this is how psychologists were researching class and race differences, who noticed what they were doing about gender? Though psychologists talked about their field as a body of knowledge based on clinical and experimental observations of human beings, they didn’t talk about their political program, their mission, which was to use their observations to create a set of beliefs about who was human and who was not quite human, who should rule and who should be ruled. Fortunately, Carol Gilligan’s knowledge of two worlds, and her sense of belonging more in the world that was not welcome at Harvard University, protected her from caring too much about getting ahead in a tacitly politicized field of psychology.
 
Most people who shift paradigms in science aren’t looking for what they find, and Gilligan fits that description. But she wasn’t looking for what she was supposed to be looking for, either. Again and again, when I talk to her years and then decades later about what she was thinking and feeling when she made her first discoveries, she uses metaphors of water. It was as though the world she was about to bring psychology into were a different element, a different medium for life, and she had to be amphibious to survive in both worlds. Air was Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, the dead and the living theory makers in her field who had set the terms of the current debates in her brand of psychology, the psychology of human development. And water was where she went when she listened to the women and men she was studying. She found the lost treasure of women’s voices underwater. Then she hid her knowledge about women and girls there to keep it safe. “It was like I’d been holding the work on women, which was the center of my work that touched me personally most centrally, absolutely underwater,” she would say. Air was the thin stuff she maintained herself on as she waited for the dry, nitpicky process of tenure review to finish with her. And then, more than a decade after she sat down and wrote “In a Different Voice,” she got tenure and a dolphin existence, air breathing and yet joyously, stylishly waterborne.
 
Certainly by 1975, her senior Harvard colleagues who knew what she was doing regarded Gilligan’s work not as important or dangerous but as trivial and irrelevant, at best a fad.
 
The fad was women.
 
Gilligan was a research psychologist working with women on women’s development at maybe the best time for women’s rights in the history of the United States. By 1975, the 1970s had already become famous as a decade that was listening to women. Women’s activism—starting with the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970—had prodded Congress into passing more laws to expand and protect women’s rights than ever before. Even the Equal Rights Amendment had risen from the dead. Though the amendment was drafted in 1923 and introduced every year after that, Congress failed to report the ERA out of committee for forty-seven years. But by 1972, both houses of Congress had passed this ultimate protection of women’s rights with huge majorities. By 1974, thirty-three of the thirty-eight states needed for ratification had passed the ERA.
 
And that was it. The crest of the second wave of the women’s movement rose and broke. Tennessee, whose legislature had made women’s suffrage law by one vote in 1920, took back its ratification of the ERA in 1974. In 1975, one more state ratified, but seven Southern and Western states rejected the ERA, and Nebraska rescinded. In 1975, the second wave started to crash into backlash.
 
Copyright © 2006, 2007 by Christina Robb. All rights reserved.
 
 

 

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